Let us praise the peerless Pat Kenny and 'move the dial'
Published 15/11/2015 | 02:30
Last Friday, listening to Pat Kenny stepping sure-footedly through the minefield of the Pat Carey story, I mentally tipped my hat in mournful tribute.
Why mournful? Because this brilliant broadcaster deserves a bigger audience than the 134,000 he currently commands on Newstalk.
Pat Kenny is the best radio presenter in Ireland. But he can't beat City Hall.
By City Hall I mean the massy weight of Mount Montrose. Because Kenny is not really competing with RTE's Sean O'Rourke on a level playing field.
RTE had the airwaves all to itself for over 60 years before commercial radio was allowed to call at the tradesmen's entrance in 1989.
For most of the last century, Lord Montrose, like some Victorian paterfamilias, enjoyed a long monopoly, speaking down from the head of the table.
Like all latecomers, commercial radio lacked moral authority. So it seemed an impertinence to pipe up and interrupt his lordship's monologue.
Commercial radio was so handicapped by history, so far behind a publicly funded RTE, that it was not competing in a truly free market.
Consider the case of Pat Kenny. In 2013, when he went to Newstalk, Kenny had 334,000 listeners.
In Newstalk, Kenny took over Tom Dunne's slot, then with only 55,000 listeners, and added 88,000 within a year. Today, after some blips, he has a lowish 134,000 loyal listeners.
Meantime, Sean O'Rourke, after a nervous start which saw him lose 40,000 listeners, steadily recovered and is now at 328,000, just 6,000 fewer listeners than Kenny when he left RTE.
In theory, Pat Kenny's listeners were free to follow him to Newstalk.
In practice they were as conditioned as Pavlov's dogs, salivating only at the sound of RTE's Angelus bell.
The historical habit of reflexively turning on RTE radio gave Sean O'Rourke a huge headstart before he ever drew breath.
Naturally a poor RTE presenter could have lost that premium. But O'Rourke is a superb broadcaster and he held on to Kenny's figures.
The RTE reflex is so strong it can be studied in my own home. In theory the house radio is tuned to Newstalk, to which I listen from dawn to dawn sometimes.
But if I go away for a few days I will return to find my wife Gwen relaxing with, but not really listening to, some soporific RTE presenter.
So subconscious has been her switch to RTE that she seems genuinely surprised when I reach for the verbal shotgun to blow the RTE cuckoo out of the nest.
Like most women caught dallying with a dope, Gwen defends her RTE dalliances with some distracting explanations.
So she tells me some of Newstalk's male presenters have a tad too much testosterone, which turns off women listeners.
Conversely, she claims that some of their RTE counterparts seem a tad too deficient in that department.
But this prompts a revolutionary question. What if RTE's reassuring, middle-of-the-road mediocrity is precisely what people want?
After all, a rejection of the new is not unique to broadcasting. It has also given us a geriatric political system.
Just as the default setting in politics is Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, so the default setting in broadcast media is RTE.
But while the political default delivers stability, the broadcasting default delivers stagnation.
RTE staff can relax in the shelter of publicly funded protection in the event of them not having the energy to push the envelope.
Those who switch to Newstalk are often surprised by a palpable change of pace.
Indeed some people, with mental middle-aged spreads, are flustered by the faster-talking, faster-thinking Newstalk presenters.
Transfer the Newstalk team of presenters to RTE, however, and by degrees they would be dulled down. Their edge comes from their environment.
Private sector broadcasters have to do some of their own grafting. This gives them a gritty grip on the topics they take on.
Listening to RTE presenters you sometimes form a mental picture of a fat pigeon parading around.
But listening to Pat Kenny you form a mental picture of a tireless hawk, circling the skies, always moving, always alert.
If you doubt that, put it to the test. Tune into Pat Kenny for a week.
Trust me. You will marvel at how Kenny, now in his mid-60s, with a tiny team of researchers, snaps, crackles and pops with electrifying energy.
Sean O'Rourke and Marian Finucane are superb presenters. But no presenter, in Ireland or the UK, can match Kenny's polymathic power to breathe fresh life into the most jaded of subjects.
Always ahead of whoever he is speaking to, be they government minister, specialist scientist, or computer geek, Kenny can walk with kings without losing the common touch.
He was at his best last Tuesday, talking to Peter Stafford and Tom Phillips of Ibec about how to tackle the housing crisis.
Totally on top of the topic, he never descended to the barracking and bluster which too many RTE presenters deploy to hide their ignorance.
Exuding energy, Kenny started off with, "I read your manifesto last night".
Far too often on RTE this translates into: "My researchers skimmed this and gave me some querulous questions."
But Kenny had read every word and the Ibec boys knew it, respected him for it.
Kenny lay bare the intricate web of forces that go into building a house or an apartment.
For the first time I found out that no fewer than 12 government agencies get involved in building one house.
Kenny sucked the Ibec duo dry. Listeners got a lucid crash course on the complexity of housing the homeless.
Thanks to Kenny doing his homework we never got lost in the plethora of planning acts or the levies imposed by 31 local authorities.
But in passing we noted the selfish behaviour of those who build bungalows in remote rural areas and then want police to respond in minutes to the first noise in the night.
Kenny's holistic grasp of the housing problem, clearly coming from his memory, not from notes, could not be matched by any of the current generation of clipboard-clutching RTE reporters.
Far too many RTE current affairs programmes seem staffed by researchers whose tired questions smack of civil servants clocking in to put down the day.
Far too often, listening to some RTE programmes I can sense a reporter coming towards me with a predictable question, like a bore approaching across a crowded room.
But Kenny never bores. He is now at the top of his game. He deserves a bigger audience.
Time to free him from his broadcasting bonds, shackled between a rock and a hard place - Sean O'Rourke's rock and RTE's hard place, formed by historical viewing habits.
In short, for our own sake, we should either move the dial, or move him to a slot where he can shine.